If you’re living on your own and your home has anything resembling a kitchen, you obviously need knives. But it seems the good ones will cost you! This set is two fifty. This one is over a grand! Why are some knives so expensive — and what’s so different about a cheap one for sale at Ikea or Target? And by the way, do you actually need all of them in those knife sets? Or will one or two suffice?
Alongside Will Griffin, the chef and knife maker behind the knives of W.A. Griffin Bladeworks, we’re chopping up some answers.
Is there really a difference between a cheap chef knife and an expensive one?
Griffin, probably to your surprise, wrestles with this question a lot. You see, the answer is a bit complicated: “There are practical, real, concrete things that separate better knives from worse knives. And those elements don’t necessarily depend on price as much,” Griffin says. Basically, there are decent knives out there that are inexpensive and do what you need them to do — cut well, hold an edge, feel comfortable, last long.
One example is Victorinox’s Fibrox chef knives. They’re kind of a mainstay in commercial kitchens and institutional settings. Griffin owns a couple and says they’ve got a rubber handle, they’re very comfortable, the steel is thin and ground well so it cuts nicely — i.e., it’s a classic. “It’s an example of a cheap thing that works well,” he says.
So why are there so many knives out there?
There are a ton of subtle differences among different brands of knives. Some have to do with the materials, but it all adds up to how it feels in your hand. That includes the weight, the balance, the geometry of the blade, the shape of the handle, the cutting action of it and more. And the more time a person spends cutting things, the more perceptive and sensitive they will naturally become about what they like and don’t like, and what works for them and what doesn’t.
So while different designs work better for different uses, sometimes there’s no right or wrong, just preference: Some people prefer a heavier knife, or a thinner blade, or a fatter handle, to name a few examples.
You don’t need to be a pro to develop this kind of sensitivity, either. Even a beer-league softball player is far more sensitive to different types and sizes of bats than someone who’s hardly ever batted, for example. So it goes with home cooks.
What goes into the cost of a knife, then?
Steel is a big part of the cost, and the price between different grades of steel is pretty vast, Griffin says. The expensive stuff are types of steel created specifically for cutting tools, which the big knife companies spend money R&D-ing.
Is expensive steel worth it?
To a certain extent, Griffin thinks the big knife-industry brands leverage all these new kinds of steel to create demand for the new and the next — the latest and greatest. In practical terms, he doesn’t think there’s a huge difference for most people in their use of a knife, regarding the steel used. However, there’s one area where it matters, and it’s one of the biggest features of a knife that you want to have: how long the knife stays sharp. The more modern and expensive steels will hold an edge for a long time. Also, better steels are more durable, and less likely to chip if you drop it or bang it against something. This applies even more so to rigorous applications of a knife: Say, for hunting knives.
In Griffin’s case, better steel means he can make a blade thinner than, say, the Victorinox blade. He can also make the steel harder and make it hold a sharp edge longer.
How are most knives made?
Most are made by machines in factories, all digitally controlled (which is known as CNC machining): The German brands, as you can imagine, are super high-tech, with robots and everything. But even in this environment, there’s usually a human touch at the very end, whether it’s buffing, polishing or just final fit and finish processes. Some of the cheaper lines, and definitely the low-end knives, are made in China.
The Japanese knife industry, though, does things its own unique way. Sure, there are the high-tech, robotic factories, but there are also other brands whose knives are an interesting blend of mass-produced and artisanal, where knife companies are buying components from different people with their own little workshops. They’ll be hand-forged by one person; another grinds the knives on a water wheel; yet another makes all the handles. Then they’re sent to the factory, where the company puts it together and stamps its logo on the knife.
Do I really need a whole set of knives?
Anthony Bourdain famously wrote, “No con foisted on the general public is so atrocious, so wrongheaded or so widely believed as the one that tells you you need a full set of specialized cutlery in various sizes.” He believed all you really needed was a single chef knife that felt comfortable to you.
So is that true?
Well, somewhat. Griffin says most people can get by just fine with a chef knife and also a paring knife (that is, a big knife and a small knife). Makes sense — doing delicate work with a big chef knife can be difficult if you’re not an expert. To illustrate this, Griffin points to a restaurant-kitchen hiring tradition called “trailing,” which is kind of like a job interview in which you work in the kitchen all day, unpaid, as a sort of audition. They basically want to see how you work, and for this, most chefs bring two knives: a chef knife and a paring knife. “They don’t want you carrying 20 knives around the kitchen,” he says, partly because that would be stupid, but mainly it’s because two basic knives will usually get the job done.
Of course, that all depends on what the job is. Griffin used to butcher fish all day at one restaurant he worked at — nothing else — and so he had a specific knife for that: a flexible filet knife. Likewise, if you have livestock on your property and you do any sort of butchering, you’ll be thankful to have a cleaver to really chop through bone. For most people, though, including talented and untalented home cooks? A chef knife and a paring knife will take care of most everything.
So why get a really nice knife at all?
Look, there are knives at all different price points, and at each of them, there are a few good ones and probably a lot of shitty ones. But even the lousy ones will still work, Griffin says, provided they stay clean, sharpened and unbroken. Eventually though, a flimsy knife is more likely to chip or break, or its handle will start coming off.
Nice knives can feel amazing in your hand, but there’s also something more going on. A guy like Griffin makes very specific knives: Hand-forged and bearing the marks of it proudly, with a real wabi-sabi vibe to them. They’re made of great steel, but that’s only one reason people buy them. It’s as much about how they make you feel.
“To me, there’s more to it than just the nuts and bolts — kind of like choosing the thing that makes you happy for whatever reason and kind of going with that,” he says. “That’s the power of handmade things: They make you feel a certain way when you use it, like you’re using something that has this organic life force to it as opposed to a sterile, machine-made object.”
But even if a precision, machine-made knife is your thing, a well-built one often just feels right. “Just get the best thing you can afford,” he advises.
What about other kinds of knives?
Pocket knives, hunting knives, survival knives, etc. often follow the same industry rules. Better steel commands a higher price, but so too does the country it’s manufactured in. Take Spyderco, one of the big pocket-knife companies. Griffin says it makes knives in Colorado that are over $100, but it also offers knives made in China for well under that (the foreign-built knives usually have cheaper steel as well, to further lower the cost).
What about collectible and fantasy shit, like swords and ninja weapons and Rambo knives?
They may resemble a knife, but Griffin says they often aren’t made like one. They’re not meant to be functional, and they’re not constructed in the proper way with proper materials. They don’t have a tough steel that’s been treated; they may not cut well or hold an edge; and who’s to say the handle won’t fall off, the way it’s riveted together? “If you don’t get [all] that right, you can’t really call it a legitimate knife — it’s like a novelty item at that point,” he explains. People are paying whatever it costs strictly for the looks, or the fact that it makes them feel like a ninja or whatever.
So, I don’t need an expensive kitchen knife?
There’s a decent chance you’d probably like using an expensive knife better than a cheap one! But no, you don’t absolutely need one. All you need is a knife that feels solid, not flimsy, is comfortable in your hand, and will hold its edge awhile. But keeping it sharp is really the most important part. Even the most expensive knife in the world doesn’t work well if it’s not sharp, Griffin says. After all, a man is only as good as his tools, said someone famous at some point.